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Sighting the Moon

For Muslims in Singapore, the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins today.

Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), or the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, announced yesterday:

According to the astronomical calculations, the crescent for the month of Ramadan did appear this evening after sunset for about 16 minutes. As such, the first day of fasting for the month of Ramadan falls tomorrow, Tuesday, 13 April 2021.

Sighting of the moon - an ancient tradition practised by Muslims to determine when exactly each month begins and ends. This is especially crucial for the months of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar), Syawal (the 10th month), and Zulhijjah (the 12th month). These would in turn determine when fasting begins and ends, and when Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji take place.

Credit: David Moug, CC BY 3.0.

There are two methods of sighting the moon:

1. Rukyah - using the eyes, be it unaided or with instruments such as telescopes.

2. Hisab - using astronomical calculations.

From the newspaper archives, it seems that for much of modern Singapore’s history, Method 1 was used by the religious authorities.

From the Malaya Tribune, 3 May 1924:

The observation stations were Mount Faber, Fort Canning Hill, Pasir Panjang’s The Gap, Tanah Merah Besar, and “the Reservoir, Serangoon”.

The first three locations were obviously chosen for their height. Tanah Merah Besar was known for its seaside cliffs at the time, which would have provided a good vantage point - the cliffs are long gone, replaced by Changi Airport today. As for the “the Reservoir, Serangoon”, I believe it refers to the service reservoir which is presently Woodleigh Waterworks, off Upper Serangoon Road.

The Gap, in a 1923 map of the Pasir Panjang area. Credit: The National Archives, United Kingdom.

Two observation boats were also sent out to the “high seas”.

From the Singapore Free Press, 16 June 1950:

The moon-sighting locations had somewhat changed. Now they included Kallang Airport (opened 1937), Hill Street Police Station (still standing today), “on top of the hillock in Palmer Road” (probably the site of Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh today), and Sultan Shoal, “three miles south of Singapore” (presently surrounded by the reclaimed areas of Tuas South and Jurong Island).

Kallang Airport in 1950. Credit: Ministry of Culture Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

That year, Ramadan began a day later because the moon was not sighted.

From The Straits Times, 1 April 1957:

That year, “the sighting of the moon in the Federation (of Malaya, which would gain its independence from the British that August) would be recognised in Singapore”. That proved to be useful, as “the new moon (for the beginning of Ramadan)... was not seen in Singapore”.

By the 1970s, the moon-sighting process in Singapore was evolving.

In 1972, the Berita Harian reported that “a decision... (would) be made by the (religious authorities) on whether or not to begin the fast according to astronomical calculations should the moon not be sighted at the appointed time” - which meant reliance on just Rukyah was shifting to a combination of Rukyah and Hisab.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, Singapore shifted to astronomical calculations, which I believe is still the case today. (Malaysia still practises a combination of Rukyah and Hisab.)

If Rukyah is still practised in Singapore today, I wonder where the moon-sighting locations would be. Mount Faber and Fort Canning Hill would still be favoured, I guess, but how about the top of our tallest skyscrapers too?


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